The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

All Saints 2022, and Christina Rossetti

Tomorrow is Halloween, which means today we anticipate the feast of All Saints in the church. Over this fall, I made references in my homilies to quite a number of saints; can you recall some of them? Yes, St Frances the lover of animals, the Spanish trio of Ignacio, Teresa and Juan, and a few others I hold dear as namesakes for my family members: Sophia and Luke, Sergius for my dad and Michael for his father, and Hope for my great grandmother who in keeping with the Russian Orthodox tradition always celebrated her “angel day” instead of her birthday. In fact, I think this is a lovely way to help alleviate the discrepancy between our regular, human, fallible lives and those of the more famous saints, whose human nature is easy to forget. Indeed, this “season of saints” of September-October does cause me to wonder if I could ever dare to call myself a saint, but it also reminds me that by God’s grace, I don’t need to wait to feel or even behave like a saint to be one. We are all God’s holy people: holy as the bread and wine become on the Lord’s Table; holy as water and light, which sustain all life, point to God’s creation and providence - earthly, material, flawed, yet representing the invisible reality in ways that exceed serving as its mere analogies or images. “Simply” put, our lives are a sacrament of God’s life. That’s hopeful, but how might we embrace this truth on a practical or emotional level, beginning today – on this feast of All Saints?

The word "sacrament" in its English form derives from Latin, where it is related to sacer (holy) and equivalent to the Greek New Testament term "mysterion" for a soldier's oath of allegiance - a sign of the beginning of a new life, as both our rites of baptism and Eucharist are. Of course, baptism happens only once, whereas the Eucharist helps us time and time again to “get back on the rails,” even if we think we are already there, and/or especially when we wonder if we may never deserve it. Each of us probably goes through both such seasons of life; more than once, perhaps, depending on temperament and circumstances. Some err on the side of self-justification, but it is also possible for many to begin to feel undeserving of grace when reading such passages as the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Plain (in Luke) or Mount (in Matthew) that we heard today. Indeed, as commands or standards for living, they are unattainable; and as a list of rewards vs. woes, they are, frankly, unappealing. But what if in that moment, Jesus wasn’t actually promising a blessing to those who behave well, but was conferring a blessing everyone gathered before him? Likewise, perhaps, he wasn’t cursing anyone who fell short of the Kingdom’s standards either, but simply stated the fact that the woes of this life are inescapable, even despite his blessing.

What happens in your heart when you hear a blessing, receive an absolution, or partake of the Eucharist? Maybe, you feel a measure of peace that “passes all understanding”; or perhaps, a sense of being in touch with the reality that transcends your being and links you with the innumerable cloud of witnesses who similarly received blessings, forgiveness, and communion over the course of their earthly lives? Isn’t it so wonderful to ponder that as we gather here, we are worshiping alongside those who are doing so in this very moment - and in eternity - out of the fullness of knowledge of God?

As such things are difficult to comprehend intellectually, the arts may be of help. So today, in honor of All Saints, I offer you a poem by Christina Rossetti: a Victorian writer who drew on narratives from the Bible, folk tales and yes, the lives of saints to inspire her poems, even as, in keeping with the romanticism of her time (and perhaps as reflective of her own spiritual, mental, and physical struggles), she often meditated on death and loss. She also gave us two Christmas carols: "In the Bleak Midwinter" (in its most famous version set to music by Gustav Holst), and "Love Came Down at Christmas"; soon enough, we will sing them here. What I want to mention on this feast of All Saints - and in light of the Beatitudes - is that her life, like all of ours, held a fair measure of blessing and woe. Having dictated her first story to her mother before she had learnt to write, by age 31, she became widely praised by her contemporaries, and remained the foremost female poet long after her death. She had a happy childhood, but it ended with her father’s illness and resulting financial difficulties; subsequently, she suffered a nervous breakdown by the age of 14, followed by bouts of chronic depression and Grave’s disease that never left her. She had three suitors, but none of the proposals worked out because of religious differences (the Rossetti family became dedicated to Anglo-Catholicism; and in fact, in the Anglican church calendar commemorates her in April). In her late 20s, she suffered a major religious crisis, which, I suspect, enabled her to write so powerfully of the themes of redemption and salvation. Breast cancer ended her life at age 64.

As we now read “All Saints”, consider noticing what it meant for her to be a “saint”, especially in light of my brief telling of her life story. Did she write anything about being perfect and well-behaved? Not really. What she referred to repeatedly, however, is the “palm in hand and praise in mouth” reflecting our perpetual stance of worship - the defining characteristic of “a saint”. She wrote of our diversity (all lands, great and least) in light of togetherness (flock, swarm, tide); this is interesting to note given the difficult decisions she had made earlier in life, when religious differences were important to her. She wrote about our journey towards God - upward and arduous, and yet unstoppable, like an ocean wave that moves over the shore, unlike an undercurrent that pulls away from it; or bees drawn to the irresistible, life-giving source of nectar. Awaiting us at the end is eternal rest; nothing can stop us from reaching it, and nobody is excluded from the tidal wave of God’s grace that sweeps everyone into its path. Thronging, loving, longing is what we are - in other words, holy: sacramental of the divine Image of God’s own communion, love, and desire for us. Thanks be to God.

PS Another wonderful poem to read on this feast is "All Saints' Day" by John Keble; written by another English poet (and priest), who preceded Rossetti by only a few decades, but whose poems have an entirely different style and feel.